Art therapy is helping more and more people cope with their illnesses through creativity, says Julia Stuart

If Khalida Perveen hadn't discovered art therapy, she believes, she wouldn't be alive today. Seventeen years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But, despite treatment, the disease spread and, four years ago, doctors said that her condition was terminal. It was then that she was offered art therapy on a one-to-one basis at her home in Sheffield. "I probably wouldn't be around now if I hadn't had art therapy because I wouldn't have been able to manage my emotions. I would have given up," she says. "You get frightened and become depressed, demoralised and feel very alone. You go through so much pain and eventually you think, 'Is it worth it? Let me just die.' But now I'm saying, 'No, I want to live for as long as I can.'"

Art therapists work psychologically with patients using art as a medium for expressing and exploring feelings. The technique, of which the actor Anthony Sher is a big fan, is used with a wide variety of patients, from toddlers to the elderly. The NHS has been employing art therapists since the 1940s, initially when artists and art teachers offered their services to hospitals and clinics. In 1998, therapists became eligible for state recognition.

Khalida was offered art therapy by the community team at St Luke's Hospice, Sheffield. "To be told you have cancer is a big shock to the system," says Khalida, 50. "I've had it for 17 years and I was carrying the trauma of all those years until I started this therapy. I was able to address the terror and the shock of what had happened and how I was treated socially. Some of my women friends found it very difficult to support me. They just couldn't cope with the fact that I had breast cancer and could die. A lot of my fears have now been addressed and faced. The therapy has helped me to reconnect with myself emotionally, mentally and physically. What I can't articulate comes out in the different colours I use and the different materials I work with. It has been my lifeline and given me a positive attitude, as well as a realistic one."

Simon Bell, Khalida's art therapist, offers his patients a simple range of drawing materials to choose from. "The scope of what people draw is enormous," he says. "Some people just want to use colour and shape and it can be a fairly abstract expression or idea. Some people may turn to something immediately familiar like a doodle. Others may draw something from nature or a memory. A lot of the pictures have a strong symbolic and metaphorical content. They can help people to release strong emotions that they have contained and maybe not communicated to other people, even their own immediate family. It may be frustration, fear or anger."

Greg, 57, a dance instructor, started group art therapy at Goldsmiths College at the University of London seven years ago when his children left home and he lost a business. "I was looking for the meaning in my life," he says. "One of the most traumatic periods in anybody's life is when children leave home and I needed somewhere to explore that because I couldn't seem to find the answers with my friends or in a normal kind of way. I was devastated when they left. I thought I'd be yelling, 'Yahoo, I'm free again!' but it was like being made redundant."

Greg found the group, which is led by an art therapist, so beneficial that he is still attending. The six participants have a chat before they start and afterwards discuss each other's work. "I get a lot of emotional satisfaction from it," he says. "I get a resolution of my problems and the chance to move on to different areas of my life. It's helped enormously with the children. We've been through a couple of very bad times, but we have the ability to talk and listen without getting into arguments. I used to be a very angry person. In fact, I would say that that was perhaps the only emotion I was left with at the age of 49. I'd like to say I'm better balanced. I'm just sorry I didn't start this in my twenties."

Sheila Grandison-Barendt, an art therapist in acute psychiatry in the NHS, works with patients with severe forms of mental illness including psychosis, depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. "What I find is that drawing, in particular, can be of great benefit when working with a traumatising experience that is not yet transformable into words," she says. "Images precede the capacity to put experience into thought and understanding, and the therapeutic aim of art therapy is to come to terms gradually with an experience that can't yet be put into words. People say drawing in art therapy helps them to comprehend the as yet unknown."

During the weekly sessions, patients might produce anything from a range of seemingly incoherent marks to a full-blown landscape, but it is the process of drawing that is important, rather than the work produced. "Most adults haven't drawn since school," says Grandison-Barendt. "It can very quickly take them back to an earlier age, for example when a parent became absent for whatever reason - a time of traumatic separation. That can be picked up by the art therapist and worked through. When working with people from disrupted social circumstances, refugees or people with a lost sense of cultural identity, the drawing of a landscape can very quickly take them back to their country of origin. The picture provides the bridge to be able to talk about it."

Artists, rather than art therapists, have been working with specific patient groups at East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust for the last 10 years. This year, the trust's Arts in Healthcare programme has been helping stroke patients and those in long-term chronic pain. "The big thing with strokes is to keep people active and stimulated to start repairing the damage done," says Mary Hooper, who manages the programme. "The effect of any creative activity focuses your attention away from your illness and being in hospital, with its loss of identity and displacement. It's also very social, so it's enjoyable."

Art is also being used as a tool for maintaining good health. Heather O'Neill, a nurse and health visitor with a degree in fine art, who is employed by Croydon Primary Care Trust, encourages people to draw during the health promotion workshops she runs for playgroups, nurseries, women's groups, family centres, play schemes and adults with learning disabilities. Topics include healthy eating, fitness and exercise, sun safety, smoking and drugs. "By drawing things, people remember more and they are interacting with the subject matter," she says. "One of the benefits of drawing is that it heightens perception and aids communication. Often while we are drawing we are not making eye contact, and people come up with all sorts of ideas and queries that they probably wouldn't bring up in a group or face to face. It's really quite interesting what people tell me while they are drawing. Adults, for example, talk about all sorts of problems that they would be too embarrassed to discuss if they were making eye contact with you."

During her sessions, clients have helped produce the biggest drawing in the world on an 11m sheet of lining paper. It was made last year as part of The Big Draw, a series of public drawing events and competitions. The annual project is organised by the Campaign for Drawing, which was set up in 2000 by the Guild of St George, a small charity, to celebrate the centenary of the death of its founder, the artist, art critic and social reformer John Ruskin. He believed that drawing is as essential to life as reading or writing. Khalida Perveen would agree with him.


Every national gallery and museum in the UK will be taking part in this year's The Big Draw, as well as hospitals, stately homes, art clubs, schools, shopping centres, churches and beaches. The Independent is The Big Draw's media partner.

The month-long event will be launched on 26 September in Trafalgar Square. Artists, architects, dancers and unicyclists will be encouraging the nation to start drawing. Rolf Harris will be leading hundreds of professional and amateur artists as they aim to recreate John Constable's The Hay Wain on a giant scale. Quentin Blake, patron of The Campaign for Drawing, will also be on hand.